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Thursday, 6 November 2014

The fertility of Locke's indirect perception

Whitehead takes Locke (and Descartes) to have made a major metaphysical breakthrough by developing the notion that in perception we have ideas. That is, perception is not just capture, but modulation. For Locke, these ideas were mainly sensations - universals - and they were just given to our senses. The senses, in their turn, would deliver these ready-made ideas to us and provide the stuff empirical thought is made of. The metaphysical import of that is made clear by Berkeley immaterialist bending of Locke's idea. Berkeley argued against a material object in perception beyond perceived ideas. He claimed that to be is to be perceived (or to perceive). His immaterialism boiled down to an ontology of minds and ideas with no room to anything oblivious to human cogitations. But still, immaterialism provided an alternative to the substance-quality metaphysics according to which material objects would have intrinsic qualities independently of what is perceived. Berkeley and Locke (and Whitehead) draw on indirect perception: while direct perception is an epistemological theory about how to perceive items with a substance-quality metaphysical structure, indirect perception introduced an intermediate that, as Berkeley (and Whitehead) clearly saw, made the substance-quality item beyond it unnecessary. Direct perception is not a metaphysical thesis, it is no more than a theory of how whatever exists gets perceived. Indirect perception introduces the new objects: ideas. The challenge of philosophy since Descartes was to bring together these new objects with some form of realism. In fact, we can read Locke, Kant and some of the phenomenology inspired by Brentano and Husserl as attempts to fulfill this task. Whitehead, in any case, takes up this endeavor and he starts out by biting the bullet and claiming that the structure of perception is general and every actuality both perceive and is perceived.

To be sure, there is also a recent big despair in indirect perception as a guide to realism. This is why some people see phenomenology as hopelessly antirealist and attempt to build up alternative direct perception realisms. Curiously, a popular attempt to do that - to build a realist direct perception that is not itself also plagued with skeptical difficulties about hallucinations - is Gibson's ecological account where what is perceived has to do with the affordances of the object perceived. It is interesting that, here, it seems like ideas have been replaced by affordances - as if the problem with indirect perception was that ideas are authored by what perceives and not by what is perceived. Recently, the disjuntivist conception of direct perception has received some attention. (I think mainly of McDowell and recently of Pritchard's attempt to defend disjuntivism as a form of epistemic internalism.) Disjunctivism tries to break with the idea of a Cartesian theater of ideas - the maximum common factor - by explicitly addressing the differences between veridical perceptions and hallucinations. There is no intermediary object perceived in both cases. The maneuver can be understood as an attempt to move away from what can be discriminated in perception. (This is why disjunctivism seems to have to entail epistemic disjunctivism).

Whitehead doesn't want to move away from discrimination. In fact, for him, the criteria for discriminating is what brings creativity to perception - which is important for his explanation of novelty in the world. However, his internalism is universal - every actuality is engaged in a cognition process that has to do with their capacities to discriminate. All of them perceive ideas and are perceived by means of ideas. This is why perception is at its core social and perspectival. Also, it is not that something is given to us independently of our conceptual makeup like a Lockean empiricism maintains. Rather, that the deliverances of the senses are shaped by what we are - the concepts we hold and how our organism deals with them. Each actuality has its own nexus, its own way to conceive ideas and therefore introduce new ideas into the world. The generation of ideas is no longer happening from one active pole to a passive pole but rather is reciprocal. Because both sides are having ideas, indirect perception is the basis for a metaphysics of perceiving (and perceived) actualities.

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